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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

the wonder and the 10 year rule

J.D. Beresford was a mid-level Edwardian man of letters – friend of D.H. Lawrence, to the extent that Lawrence had male friends – did the Georgian literary circuit, wrote a critical study of HG Wells, and a sci fi novel – The Hampdenshire Wonder – that was just re-issued in a critical edition from the University of Nebraska press. Because LI’s faithful reader Brian likes to mention SF, and because I’ve had fun reading Culture Monkey’s SF and Utopia posts, I picked it up, in a manner of speaking. It is the story of Victor Stott, a child of extraordinary, superhuman mental capability born to two ordinary parents – although one of them, to be fair, was a great cricketeer. His superiority to the merely human is evidenced from the instant he is born, since his gaze even in the first hours has the power, when turned on a person directly, to make that person feel like one of the lower creatures, a worm, a dog, or at the very least a servant. The story is narrated by a journalist, who we first meet in a train, reading Bergson’s Time and Free Will, “as it is called in the English translation.”

The baby has a huge head – usually the sign of idiocy, but in this case the sign of the ‘bigger brain’. His father, Ginger Stott, soon walks out on his wife and child, since he can’t stand the boy’s gaze. He thinks of him as a horror. Unfortunately, the child arouses the instinctive enmity of the village vicar, a medievalist and inveigher against modernity, Mr. Crashaw. But, by chance, he is spotted by the village landlord, Henry Challis, a wealthy dilettante in the sciences, particularly, it seems, anthropology, who functions as Victor’s protector.

When Victor is four, Challis has him taken to his mansion, thinking he will teach him to read, even though the child’s masterly attitude and glance unnerves him. Nevertheless, he piles some of the 11th edition Encyclopedia Britannica up on a chair so the boy can sit and look at a dictionary – which he of course soon absorbs. And then it is time for the encyclopedia itself. Challis has hired an assistant, George Lewes, a young man on the verge of … distinction in some field, and Lewes claims, at first, that the child is just mimicking reading. But then comes the terrible day that Victor Stott finishes the last volume and begins a discourse that lasts for six hours, which apparently is not only couched at a level of scientific sophistication far beyond the human, but also, in as much as Challis understands it, contains a view of reality that is so harsh and cruel that it crushes Challis’s idealism:

"I am most interested," said Challis. "Will you try to tell me, my boy,
what you think of--all this?"

"So elementary ...inchoate ... a disjunctive ...patchwork," replied
the Wonder. His abstracted eyes were blind to the objective world of our
reality; he seemed to be profoundly analysing the very elements of

Then that almost voiceless child found words. Heathcote's announcement
of lunch was waved aside, the long afternoon waned, and still that thin
trickle of sound flowed on.

The Wonder spoke in odd, pedantic phrases; he used the technicalities of
every science; he constructed his sentences in unusual ways, and often
he paused for a word and gave up the search, admitting that his meaning
could not be expressed through the medium of any language known to him.

Occasionally Challis would interrupt him fiercely, would even rise from
his chair and pace the room, arguing, stating a point of view, combating
some suggestion that underlay the trend of that pitiless wisdom which in
the end bore him down with its unanswerable insistence.

During those long hours much was stated by that small, thin voice which
was utterly beyond the comprehension of the two listeners; indeed, it is
doubtful whether even Challis understood a tithe of the theory that was
actually expressed in words.

As for Lewes, though he was at the time nonplussed, quelled, he was in
the outcome impressed rather by the marvellous powers of memory
exhibited than by the far finer powers shown in the superhuman logic of
the synthesis.

One sees that Lewes entered upon the interview with a mind predisposed
to criticise, to destroy. There can be no doubt that as he listened his
uninformed mind was endeavouring to analyse, to weigh, and to oppose;
and this antagonism and his own thoughts continually interposed between
him and the thought of the speaker. Lewes's account of what was spoken
on that afternoon is utterly worthless.”

Victor Stott is evidently an evolutionary time traveler – at least, given the popular Edwardian misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory as one of directional evolution. He is a sport of nature born into the present from the distant biological future. And while that starts up all kinds of topics in itself, LI is interested in the story as a sort of background myth – the genius from outer space - to start another topic we’ve been thinking about ever since we reviewed Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman for a short notice in the New Yorker. There was a factoid Sennet quotes that I had not heard before, perhaps because I’m not a music student – that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. LI was intrigued by this figure, and tracked down this article by Ericcson which quotes the studies showing that the “10 year benchmark”, as it is sometimes called, has been studied in a number of domains of skill, and seems to be generally, but not universally, true. I should note that the factoid should not be read that 10 years of practice will make you an expert, but that expertise takes ten years of practice – this is a retrospective judgment not about all, but about the most skillful:

“Among investigators of expertise, it has generally been assumed that the performance of experts improved as a direct function of increases in their knowledge through training and extended experience. However, recent studies show that there are, at least, some domains where "experts" perform no better then less trained individuals (cf. outcomes of therapy by clinical psychologists, Dawes, 1994) and that sometimes experts' decisions are no more accurate than beginners' decisions and simple decision aids (Camerer & Johnson, 1991; Bolger & Wright, 1992). Most individuals who start as active professionals or as beginners in a domain change their behavior and increase their performance for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level. Beyond this point, however, further improvements appear to be unpredictable and the number of years of work and leisure experience in a domain is a poor predictor of attained performance (Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996). Hence, continued improvements (changes) in achievement are not automatic consequences of more experience and in those domains where performance consistently increases aspiring experts seek out particular kinds of experience, that is deliberate practice (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer, 1993)--activities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual's performance. For example, the critical difference between expert musicians differing in the level of attained solo performance concerned the amounts of time they had spent in solitary practice during their music development, which totaled around 10,000 hours by age 20 for the best experts, around 5,000 hours for the least accomplished expert musicians and only 2,000 hours for serious amateur pianists. More generally, the accumulated amount of deliberate practice is closely related to the attained level of performance of many types of experts, such as musicians (Ericsson et al., 1993; Sloboda, et al., 1996), chessplayers (Charness, Krampe & Mayr, 1996) and athletes (Starkes et al., 1996).”

According to Harald Mieg’s The Social Psychology of Expertise, Chase and Simon (the inevitable Herbert Simon) did a famous study of chess masters and found that they had to devote “10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess problems” – and it is from their 1973 study that the 10,000 hours benchmark got its start.

Also according to Miegs: “John R Anderson at Carnegie Mellon showed that the increase in speed is a function of the amount of practice. “There do not appear to be any cognitive limits on the speed with which a skill can be performed.”… Anderson described the case of a woman whose job was to roll cigars in a factory. Her speed at cigar making improved continuously over ten years.” [21]

What connection does the Wonder have with the cigar woman? Hopefully, we’ll come back to this in another post.


Dominic said...

There do not appear to be any cognitive limits on the speed with which a skill can be performed

I'll say.

Isn't it a little like the question of whether athletes can go on breaking Olympic records indefinitely? I suspect the answer is really a topological one.

roger said...

Well, for Anderson it is always death race 2000 in the cognitive fields. Gentlemen, start your fusiform gyrus, and may the best cog-racer win!

P.M.Lawrence said...

"a great cricketeer [sic]"!

For what it's worth, there is a parallel with H.G.Wells. For many years - well into his career, in fact - he was better known in many British circles for being the son of a cricketer who played at county level than for his own work. And there is a certain resemblance between him and the physical description of the child...

roger said...

Mr. Lawrence, huh - Wells as the Wonder! So he had a disproportionately big head? Interesting. Wells was, I suppose, a prodigy in his own way.

P.M.Lawrence said...

I don't know about his head, I was thinking more of his tendency to talk in a sort of scientific Bloomsbury and a high pitched voice. And don't forget his description of the Martians' vast, cold intelligences; projection with rejection, perhaps?